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Being a dog lover during social distancing is like being thirsty in the middle of the ocean. While out enjoying our prescribed daily exercise, we’re surrounded by dogs on walks and runs with their owners. In the past we would have stopped to say hi and give the pet a scratch. But now the social and health considerations have gone AWOL, and it can be hard to know if patting dogs is still allowed.
Patting Dogs, 101
Before we get stuck into the pandemic considerations of all this, let’s start by saying you should never assume it’s ok to pat a strange dog. Even when the world is buzzing along normally, you need to ask the owner first and make sure the dog is comfortable. If the owner says it’s fine, still pause to examine the animal’s body language. Are they trying to get close to you and wagging their tail? If so, you’re probably fine to go ahead. But if they seem nervous or pull away, don’t push them.
Assuming they give you all the right signals, crouch down to their level, wait for them to approach you, and give them your hand to sniff. Don’t reach out quickly, or over their head. Again, if at any point they seem unsure, move away. Otherwise, give them a slow and gentle pat.
If you’re with another person, go through this process one at a time. Understandably, having a bunch of random people rub you down can be stressful.
Can Dogs Carry and Spread Coronavirus?
This is a complex question, which we go into with more detail here, but in short–dogs don’t appear to be vulnerable to catching and spreading the disease. There have been a few very rare cases when a pet has tested positive for carrying Covid-19, but that’s not the same as being infected. It’s more comparable to how fabric or a piece of mail could carry it.
Cail Golab, the chief veterinary officer at the American Veterinary Medical Association explained that “the virus survives best on smooth surfaces, such as counter tops and doorknobs…Porous materials, such as pet fur, tend to absorb and trap pathogens, making it harder to contract them through touch.”
There is no evidence of dogs passing it onto humans.
Saying that, many healthcare workers are still advising people to not take any risks. Chatting to the Irish Times, vet Pete Wedderburn said “dogs and cats cannot get coronavirus, but you should keep your dog two metres from other dogs and humans if you are out for a walk.”
Interestingly, when we asked our OTL Instagram community if they thought it was ok to pet strange dogs, the majority said no.
This Isn’t Really about Patting Dogs
Which brings us to the larger issue. The risk isn’t really in patting the dog, but talking to the owner. To practice social distancing responsibly you need to stay two meters away from anyone you don’t live with. If you’re engrossed with a cute dog, you’re more likely to forget that. Also, if the dog is on-leash it might be impossible to be two full meters from the owner.
Even if the animal is off-leash, say at a dog park, you still need to be respectful. Covid-19 impacts us emotionally as well as physically. Just because you’ve decided you’re comfortable with a stranger’s pet doesn’t mean everyone feels the same. Most of us are still adjusting to new comfort levels and expectations, and we need to be thoughtful about how they may differ.
Before you approach someone or their dog, try get a sense of their body language. Are they avoiding eye contact and moving swiftly away from people? If so, give them space.
Are they smiling back at you, happy to see someone else thinks their pet is cute? Great. But you still need to stay two meters away, ask for permission, and make it clear they can say no. Don’t push or try to convince them. Most importantly, keep the exchange short, stay two meters away, and don’t stand around chatting afterwards.
Wash Your Hands!
As always, wash your hands after you pet any dog (including your own), and avoid touching your face until you’re able to. If you’re not near a sink, use hand sanitiser. Even if we don’t have evidence of spread through dogs, we all still need to be super careful.
As much as it pains us to say, it may be worth taking a break from frolicking with dogs outside of your family for a little while. We know it sucks, but it’s also temporary. In the meantime, just give your own pet a double dose of attention.
For more information on Covid-19 and dogs, catch up on: